As Europe’s Prisons Fill Up, France Takes a Different Approach

William spreads cream over a lemon sponge cake, as another cook ladles steaming platefuls of paella. The kitchen staff is in rush mode on a recent weekday, not to serve a hungry restaurant crowd, but prison officials on their lunchtime break. 

Welcome to Eysses detention center in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a picturesque southern French town abutting the Garonne River better known for its medieval architecture than its penal population. But, in some ways, Eysses inmates like William are test cases for a sweeping government effort to slash recidivism and tackle one of Europe’s highest rates of prison overcrowding. 

Last month, President Emmanuel Macron outlined measures that would scrap or reconsider short-term prison sentences in favor of options such as home detention with electronic tagging, and building 7,000 cells over the next four years to ease overcrowding. Proposals also call for creating jobs to reinforce probation and re-insertion programs for an inmate population that has soared from 48,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today.

“Sentences must be credible and understandable, not necessarily in terms of being the most severe possible,” said Macron.

Some call Macron’s plan soft on crime, while others suggest it doesn’t go far enough, particularly when it comes to radicalism flourishing in French jails. Yet, it has drawn support for encouraging experiments, like the Respect pilot rolled out just over a year ago at Eysses, which is based on a Spanish model.

“We don’t have results yet,” when it comes to shrinking the number of repeat offenders, Eysses detention head Philippe Sperandio said. “But we see a drop in physical violence among inmates; there are fewer infractions.” 

The 18 prisons that have launched Respect since 2015 also report a drop in suicide rates. Another 20 are expected to introduce the pilot project over the next two years. 

Options to delinquency

Respect is run in only one Eysses wing, and getting into the program is competitive. Those accepted must a sign a contract listing a series of obligations, and risk expulsion for infractions like possessing a cellphone. Rules include spending 25 hours weekly either working or participating in educational or health-related activities. Inmates also take shifts cleaning up communal spaces; but, the plusses include keys to their cells — a powerful symbol of limited liberty, even if guards have copies. 

“Just getting up in the morning, going to work, participating in activities, helps them to get back into life and to realize there are other possibilities besides delinquency and crime,” says prison psychologist Ludmilla Issanchou. 

Detention head Sperandio recounts one departing inmate telling him he had never experienced anything like Respect before. 

“Will that help ensure he won’t come back? I don’t know,” he added. “But he sees things differently. He knows what he’s lost.” 

For 32-year-old pastry maker William, the pilot program marks a sharp break from previous penitentiary experiences during his decade behind bars. 

“Some are hotter then others,” he says. “Here, we have a semblance of liberty within the walls, even if there are always bars.” 

​In the small prison garden, guard Carol Cerjak helps several inmates pull out the last of the winter greens. The pilot has also helped to build better relations between guards and inmates, Eysses staff say – a stark contrast from other French prisons, where several attacks by radicalized inmates unleashed a nationwide prison guard strike in January over prison conditions. 

“I am very rarely confronted by violence, and we’re a lot more relaxed,” Cerjak says. “You see a prisoner coming here, and a week later, they’re completely different.” 

Not for radicalized inmates

A recent report by the Council of Europe, the region’s top rights watchdog, counted French jails among the most overcrowded in western Europe, and France among the few where the penal population is rising. While Danish and Dutch prisons average one prisoner per cell, it found France averages 117 inmates per 100 cells, with even higher rates in areas like Paris. 

Alternatives to 24/7 incarceration encouraged under Macron’s reforms have their limits, however. For the country’s roughly 1,600 radicalized inmates — whose numbers have swollen with returning jihadi fighters, and those charged for plotting or carrying out attacks at home — the answer is building more cells and isolation blocks to stop the spread of radical Islam. 

“The idea is not to ostracize them so they leave embittered,” says Justice Ministry spokesman Youssef Badr, describing small units and one-on-one attention for radicalized inmates. “There’s real effort made to rehabilitate them.”

Experts suggest countering radicalism should include more open systems, pointing to Denmark, where inmates wear their own clothes, participate in sports and cook their own meals to prepare for life outside. 

Yet, “if one of these jihadists in open spaces become violent and kills people, it would be very politically costly for the government,” says leading prison expert Farhad Khosrokhavar, “so they don’t dare do it.” 

“They stress the repressive side and not the integration side,” he adds. “And that is the attitude, I would say, of many European governments nowadays.” 

At Eysses, inmate Jean-Luc digs his hands deep into the earth, preparing the prison garden for spring planting. After 29 years behind bars, he is a believer of Respect’s “tough love” approach. 

“I’ve been in some where even a dog wouldn’t enter,” he says. “Here, Respect gives us back our dignity.”